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Washington, D.C. City Council Legalizes Gay Marriage

By L. K. Regan

The Washington, D.C. City Council has faced a lot of resistance in its efforts to legalize gay marriage, including threats from Congress and the Catholic Church. Even so, the Council passed a measure on Tuesday that legalizes same-sex marriages in the city. And despite the potential resistance of Congress, it looks like this law may stick.

It's been a rough couple of months for gay marriage, with a law in Maine being revoked by voters in November, and a bill going down to defeat in the New York State Legislature earlier this month. But the nation's capital has been on a pro-gay marriage trajectory for a while, having recently passed a measure offering recognition of same-sex marriages performed in other states. The new bill, which will add the District of Columbia to Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, Vermont, and (beginning next year) New Hampshire, passed the Council by a margin of 11 to two. Mayor Adrian Fenty is prepared to sign it before Christmas, and if it survives challenges, it will go into effect in the spring. Said the bill's author, Councilman David Catania, "Today’s vote is an important victory not only for the gay and lesbian community but for everyone who supports equal rights."

Resistance to the measure will no doubt come to a head in the coming weeks, particularly in Congress, which directly oversees the District's budget. But overturning the measure would be no simple matter. First, Democratic control of Congress will make action slow. And that matters, because the House, Senate and President Obama would all have to sign onto a resolution disapproving of the law—within 30 (legislative) days. Furthermore, direct Congressional interference with the District's autonomy is a source of resentment in the city, a situation Congress and anti-gay activists may all want to avoid.

A further moment of truth for the measure is offered by a court challenge, scheduled to be heard in early January, that challenges the D.C. Board of Elections' decision not to put gay marriage up for a public referendum. But Councilman Catania is unapologetic about this decision to take gay marriage out of the hands of the voting public. "It isn’t that I’m fearful of losing,” he said. “I think the process is diminishing. I think that putting the rights of minorities on the ballot and allowing the forces of intolerance to spend an unlimited amount to demonize and marginalize a population is unsavory.”

Among those opposing the bill was former D.C. mayor, and current Council member, Marion Barry. "This must be a proud day for you, David, Mr. Graham," said Barry, who was involved in the civil rights movement, "Just as it was a proud day for me when the voting rights bill was passed in 1965. But this is a democracy and I reserve the right to disagree." Most disagreement is being generated by religious groups; but the D.C. bill was carefully crafted to address the freedom-of-religion concerns often leveled against gay marriage. Under its provisions, no religious organization can be compelled to perform same-sex marriages, nor to provide space or services to them. This will not end the objections. But it's a sign that the gay marriage fight is not about rights for some at the expense of others, but about civil rights for all.